I attended the annual National Retail Federation (NRF) show in New York City last month. After spending two days meeting with retailers and exhibitors (and walking what felt like 10 miles, uphill, in the snow), one thing at least was clear to me: These are boom times for retail technology, with a wide range of new technologies and new vendors competing to power the next generation of retail innovation.
The NRF show offers a smorgasbord of technology with over 500 exhibitors spread across the Javits Center’s 84,000 square feet of exhibition space. Over 30,000 people attended, with a strong international contingent in addition to most major U.S. retailers.
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All the largest retail technology providers had big presences, including IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft, Intel, and others. But the show increasingly attracts startup companies hoping to close deals or at least build some buzz. Below I discuss a few technologies and companies I saw – it’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it highlights some of the innovative retail technology that is emerging:
- Virtual Reality. Marxent provides VR solutions to retailers, including Lowe’s and Ashley Furniture, that let consumers design and interact with virtual home improvement projects. After putting on a VR headset, I was able to walk around a virtual living room, leaning over to see the details of the fabric texture, changing colors of the sofa, switching out an end table for a chair, and viewing the room from all angles. I was surprised how immersive the experience was – I even walked into a real-world wall when I forgot I wasn’t actually in the virtual room (don’t tell anyone). VR technology also has a range of B2B applications. InContext, for example, is using VR to help CPGs and retailers co-design better in-store displays and promotions in less time and for less money.
- AI/advanced analytics. Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence were all the buzz at NRF, with vendors large and small touting new solutions. Several startups are using the AI to more deeply personalize the shopping experience. Findmine, for example, uses artificial intelligence to create complete outfits around every product in a fashion retailer’s catalog in real time. Startups such as SwiftIQ, Boomerang Commerce, and ciValue are also leveraging AI and Big Data technologies to provide retailers and CPGs with lightning fast and deep insights to drive CRM, pricing, merchandising, and supply chain decisions by linking and mining POS, CRM, mobile, web and other data sets.
- Employee tools. A number of startups are providing tools to retail employees to streamline staffing, provide training, and deliver real-time data on store performance. ShiftMessenger, for example, offers a simple text-based application that lets store managers post works shifts and also lets employees trade shifts directly in line with staffing requirements. In early pilots, the technology can deliver significant increases in sales and employee satisfaction.
- In-store analytics. For all the advances in retail analytics over the past decade, the store has largely remained a data black hole: even where retailers have detailed purchase data, they rarely know how shoppers shop the store. A number of startup companies are trying to bring cutting edge technologies to capture and analyze in-store traffic flows, shopping behavior, employee activity, and more. RetailNext, which had a large presence at the show, provides an integrated set of video and WiFi/sensor analytics to analyze shopper in-store behavior while Euclid Analytics emphasizes opt-in Wifi-based analytics. ShelfBucks offers a more specialized system, analyzing the performance of in-store merchandising displays as well as offering the opportunity for marketers to use beacons to deliver offers and other content to shoppers. Another set of startups, including Trax Retail, Bossa Nova, and Simbe Robots, is using image recognition and robotics to automate the ability to analyze the shelf to identify out of stocks, items that are mispriced, and areas that are not in planogram compliance.
- Many of the larger tech vendors were touting their Internet of Things solutions. One interesting innovation came from Kroger, which is commercializing its digital shelf-edge marketing platform. Developed by Kroger’s head of R&D Brett Bonner and his team, the 4-inch color display strips integrate with the shelf to deliver electronic price tags as well as ads and coupons. The system combines sensors and analytics to detect individual shoppers through their mobile devices and can offer personalized pricing on specific items and highlight products on the customer’s mobile shopping list. The devices are in 14 Kroger stores with more planned.
- Mass customization. In the future, retailers may be able to use 3D printing and other technologies to deliver customized products in real-time. Intel, which is making a big push into retail IoT, is powering a 3D printer made by Shima Seiki that can knit an entire sweater based on a customer’s unique demands in around 45 minutes. As these machines get cheaper and faster, they could have a big impact on product manufacturing in apparel and other retail categories.